I can barely process the words I'm about to type myself, but here goes nothing: imagine if - and it is a tough thing to imagine if you haven't seen the evidence - imagine if there was a film about a 1970s British glam rock superstar so fucking bad that it made Bohemian Rhapsody look good. What you have perhaps just imagined is Stardust, a film about David Bowie's 1971 tour of the United States that is, I say with all horror-stricken sincerity, the worst music biopic I have ever seen. And I will remind you that I have seen Beyond the Sea.

The film clearly exists because Bohemian Rhapsody in 2018 and Rocketman in 2019 both demonstrated that there is a market for glam rock biopics, and David Bowie seemed like the next biggest target after the ultra-massive superstars Freddie Mercury and Elton John,* not least because he just died and couldn't put up a fight.

No, literally, Stardust exists in direct contradiction to Bowie's explicit desire to never have a film made about his life, and his family's refusal to cooperate with the filmmakers in any way. This has one utterly crippling side effect from which the film would never be able to recover, no matter how good it was: it can't use any Bowie music. There are ways around this presumably, and it might even be nice to have the life story of a musician that wasn't ultimately just an excuse for famous people to do karaoke, like Rocketman, or even better, for famous people to lip-sync, like Bohemian Rhapsody. And Bowie, with his embrace of highly cinematic stage personae (and his appearances in actual movies like The Man Who Fell to Earth and Labyrinth as striking, strange visual art in humanoid form) would presumably be an especially great candidate for that kind of image-dominated, song-free approach.

Stardust sure as fuck isn't that. It is acutely drab, in fact, a brown on brown, hold the lighting, exercise in making 1971 look as glum and joyless as you could want for a film about how being alive in 1971 made Bowie himself glum and joyless until... well, the film doesn't quite get around to that part. It's very much a "Step 1: Tour America. Step 2: ???? Step 3: Become Ziggy Stardust" kind of thing, and the main evidence the film offers for how Bowie came to devise his first great alter ego is that, well, we already know he did it.

The first and last time that director Gabriel Range will have anything resembling a visual idea in the whole 109 minutes of Stardust comes immediately at the beginning, when he re-creates a few shots from 2001: A Space Odyssey, with David Bowie (Johnny Flynn) as Keir Dullea; this includes shooting a close-up of Flynn with a wide-angle lens. I hope that's enough visual flair to tide you over, because it's the last time that "ah, they chose a specific lens for a specific reason" entered my mind for the entire movie. Also, why 2001? Is it literally only because of "Space Oddity", which functions as the standard issue "the big hit, before your recent commercial failure" that is the fuel for all biopics of artists? Because I think it's literally only because of "Space Oddity", and that's a pretty stupid reason for it. Anyway, once Bowie stops daydreaming about being trapped in a spacesuit in a lifeless industrial space - the latter will come back much later in the film - he can get to the important business of being a bland, whiny drip, played with a deadening lack of charisma or playfulness by Flynn, an actor visibly ten years too old to play the nervous young man trying to articulate his artistic career, and whose primary qualification for the part is that when he turns the left side of his face to the camera, if you glance at the screen without focusing on it, he looks a lot more like Bowie than most white men do.

The film documents a chain of events rather than telling a story, which is a choice that might have worked if it was more thoroughly the central goal of the film; as it is, it feels like Range and Christopher Bell, in writing their story, never decided what they wanted the stakes to be, and just assumed that part would take care of itself as long as they eventually got Flynn in Ziggy Stardust makeup. What happens is that Bowie travels to the United States to promote his third full album, The Man Who Sold the World (it, hilariously, turns out to be the case that they couldn't use Bowie's album covers either, so when we briefly see it, it's a faked version of the original), under the guardianship of record label promoter Ron Oberman (Marc Maron). This is a bit of a make-or-break album for Bowie's career, with the glow of "Space Oddity" having faded, but he's extremely terrible at handling even the gentlest softball questions about where his music came from and what it means to him, given that he has no personality to speak of outside of a bone-deep terror of developing a mental illness, like his asylum-resident half-brother Terry (Derek Moran). You might say that Bowie has no real "self", so he needs to invent Ziggy and Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke and all to serve as his identity instead. And that would be a shitty, trite thing to say, but it's still more than Stardust is up for; in the absence of any actual theme, I guess I have to imagine that's what the idea is meant to be, but this isn't even me connecting the movie's dots for it; this is me laying out the rest of the dots that it couldn't be bothered with.

When not bombing interviews, Bowie gives stilted, straining performances of songs that are the closest thing to authentic "Bowie covered this" tracks that the producers could manage (a Yardbirds cover shows up at a particularly wrong-headed moment, for example), and I cannot begin to say if this was a choice, or if it's just Flynn being ill-equipped for the role. The impression we get is of a youngish man whose career is in peril with no evidence that we should want it to succeed; his marriage to the snappish Angie (Jena Malone, coping with an impossible part) is in peril as well, and the film manages the neat trick of making both participants appear to be in the wrong.

It's not all bad: the camera is never out of focus and I don't remember a single instance of an actor turning offscreen to say "line?" More to the point, the evocation of 1971 in the sets and costumes works okay; there's a shabby, downcast, miserable vibe to the places where Bowie has to do his hustling and his living that gets at the glum life of a touring artist on the skids. That's the closest it comes to capturing any kind of truth, about Bowie, rock, or just the setting. I can hardly imagine a more conservative, paint-by-numbers rock biopic, and the unconvincing mimicry and absence of hit songs makes it desperately clear just how scrawny and insufficient those numbers are.

*I, for one, absolutely can't wait until 20th Century Boys, the thrilling story of T. Rex.

†It hardly needs to be said, of course, that if they really wanted to do a proper David Bowie biopic, the first, last, and only choice for the lead role would have been Tilda Swinton.